‘Not enough’ whizkids

2014-07-08 00:00

ONLY a single South African student was among the 49 young whizkids who graduated from South Africa’s elite maths and science institute last week.

Despite remarks from guest speaker and former president Kgalema Motlanthe that only science training at this level could “unlock the new technologies to solve [our] problems”, South Africans represent only a fraction of the graduates at the Advanced Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) since its launch in Cape Town in 2003.

Most of these future field leaders come from Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal — with South African students either preferring other subjects; poached from local universities by private industry at undergraduate level; or unwilling to study AIMS’s August-to-June academic year.

Many of its graduates have gone on to pioneer new ways to model epidemics, and shape new computer science methods, including “quantum computing”. And Senegal and Ghana already have their own AIMS centres.

This comes in the wake of a disputed report by the World Economic Forum, which ranked the quality of maths education in South Africa at 148th in the world, and another survey, which found that KwaZulu-Natal Grade 9 learning in maths was over two years behind the same level in the Western Cape.

However, AIMS director Barry Green told The Witness that a new January to November programme — introduced solely to attract South Africans — had enrolled eight local students among its intake of 55 this year, and that the prospect of future South African geniuses was looking brighter. He said a total of 26 local students were now studying at various levels.

AIMS was co-founded by local ace Neil Turok, a former collaborator with Stephen Hawking, and has a stated goal of “developing African Einsteins”.

Green said South Africa’s hosting of the International Mathematics Olympiad for high school boffins, which launched yesterday in Cape Town, was another indicator of a better outlook for science-based innovation.

Professor Kesh Govinder, head of the school of mathematics at UKZN, said AIMS graduates represented 30% of students who went on to study Masters and PhD courses in maths at UKZN, and that South African numbers coming through had been “not so good”.

But Govinder said the new semester plan would boost the number of local ­PhDs and researchers.

Johann Engelbrecht, executive director of the South African Mathematics Foundation, disputed the WEF ranking: “I am fairly convinced that the findings are perhaps somewhat exaggerated and that not all factors have been taken into account. [But] we have to realise that there are indeed serious problems with mathematics and science teaching in the country.

“Although there are pockets of excellence, there are many schools — especially in rural areas — where almost no tuition takes place in these subjects.”

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